by Sue Ann Rybak
The Rev. James Vincent Johnson, 46, will fulfill a life-long dream when he steps on stage this Saturday, Jan. 18 at the Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad St., 3 p.m., to play the role of Riccardo in the Amici Opera Company (based in Mt. Airy) production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball).”
The opera tells the story of a governor and his forbidden love for his chief of staff and best friend’s wife. “I have always wanted to play Riccardo,” said Johnson, who is a rector at All Saints Anglican Church in Lancaster. “The opera is just masterful … I’m appreciating the emotional character of Riccardo. I would really love to continue working this role as I feel there is so much more character to bring out.”
Rev. Johnson, a native of Maryland, has always loved singing. “I was probably singing before I was talking,” said Johnson, who works part-time at A Taste of Olive in Ardmore. “My aunt told me I sang her a Stevie Wonder song when I was about two years old.”
The cleric credits PBS with exposing him to classical music and nurturing his love of opera. He recalled watching “The Return of Ulysses” as a child and being transformed. “I was mesmerized at 11 years old,” he said. “After I saw it, I wanted to sing like that.”
Johnson used to put on make-believe concerts in his parents’ home in Baltimore. “My parents never complained about my singing, but my brother and sister might have had a laugh or two at some of my antics,” Johnson said. “My relationship with God influences my entire approach to singing. My parents, at the urging of my grandparents, sent my brother and me to vacation bible school at the local Presbyterian Church. By the end of the week, I was firmly convicted and convinced of my Christian faith. Not long after, that conviction turned into a desire to serve God’s people by bringing Christ to them through the word and sacrament.”
Despite feeling called to serve God, Johnson took a roundabout way to ministry. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, but he originally planned to study journalism. “They had a fantastic journalism program. Connie Chung went there.”
After graduating in 1989, Johnson decided he wanted to go to law school. But he said God began calling him to serve. “Weird things began happening. Strangers would come up to me on the bus and ask me if I was a minister. I would say ‘NO.’ There was no one major event, just a steady, growing desire and an internal feeling that serving ministerially was appropriate for me.”
In 2003, Johnson was ordained in the Diocese of the Eastern United States of the Anglican Church.
Since then, he has worked at several Anglican churches as an associate rector. While Johnson was fulfilled spiritually, he felt like there was a piece of him missing — the musical piece.
Johnson, who performed in “Madame Butterfly” with the Lyric Opera of Philadelphia in 2005, is thankful to Raffael “Ralph” Tudisco, who founded the Amici Opera Company in 1998 and who has been the subject of several Local Life articles, for the opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream.
“I really appreciate what Ralph is doing,” Johnson said. “He is giving singers the opportunity to perform roles that they may not have a chance to perform anywhere else. And he is also keeping these works alive by making them accessible to folks who otherwise would not be able to attend a live opera.”
Tudisco describes the Amici Opera Company, now in its 15th season as “the doctor who makes house calls.” The Amici Opera Company performs year-round in such venues as Allens Lane Theater in West Mt. Airy, St. Nicholas Hall in South Philadelphia, Franco Luigi’s High Note Cafe in South Philadelphia, Stage Dock Woods Community in Lansdale and in many churches in Greater Philadelphia, South Jersey and Delaware.
“We bring opera to the people,” Tudisco said. “We perform both rare and popular operas. Singers come from all over the country to sing for free for us.”
Johnson said Tudisco is helping to create a new generation of opera lovers. “Children learn to appreciate good music through exposure,” Johnson said. “Just like in my case, I was exposed to it on television. I think that a lot of kids today, especially in the inner city, don’t have exposure to it [classical music]. All they hear is this finger-popping stuff on the radio, and they think that’s it, when the reality is, there are all kinds of glorious music out there.”
But to Johnson, singing is more than an opportunity to express himself; it’s a way to praise God. “One of the primary tasks of the angels is singing before the throne of God. Each Sunday at Mass the whole church joins the heavenly throng in praise to God. Singing is such an integral part of worship. In fact, when all is said and done, there will be no more preaching, no more Masses, no more kindly deeds of charity … the only thing that will be left in eternity is singing. It’s that understanding I keep in mind as I offer song.
“My earthly singing is a dress rehearsal for eternity. I feel so privileged to know that someday, not too long from now, I’ll be one of the leaders of the heavenly song. But my gift is also for others and is to be shared with whomever. I receive so much joy when I know that my singing is giving pleasure or otherwise touching someone else. If I can do that for just one person, it makes my day.”
For more information about Amici Opera Company call 215-224-0257. Tickets are $22 at the door; $20 for seniors; $15 for students. Tickets are $20 with a reservation. To make a reservation for the Saturday, Jan. 18, 3 p.m. performance, call 215-735-4847.